The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team needs the best out of A.J. West.
The Wolf Pack needs the West that came out of the heavens like a lightning bolt and turned this season around in late December. It needs the West that gave the program swagger, confidence and attitude and somehow made everybody wearing silver and blue a little bit better.
The best of West made coach David Carter smarter. It turned Deonte Burton back into a legitimate NBA prospect and made Jerry Evans, Michael Perez and Cole Huff valuable complementary pieces to a possible championship puzzle.
Yeah, that A.J. West.
You know, the one that only needed to read the Reno phone book with his Brooklyn dialect to make all his west coast teammates burst out laughing. The one that infused life and purpose into a struggling program almost over night.
Yeah, that A.J. West.
The one that stood up to opponents and swatted their shots into the fourth row. The one that turned the Pack from patsies to powerhouse. The one that led the Pack to more victories (five) in his first six games than it achieved (four) in its first 11 games without him.
Yeah, that A.J. West.
Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s A.J. West.
Yeah, that A.J. West.
West was indeed a strange visitor from another planet when he arrived in a Pack uniform for the first time on Dec. 22 against Iona. He indeed came to Reno with powers and abilities far beyond those of a normal Carter recruit. He clearly changed the course of this Pack season.
But where has he gone lately? West has been more Clark Kent than Superman the past couple weeks. And the Pack has lost three games in a row and four of its last six. The season is treading water right now. The Pack needs West to come crashing through the window dressed in tights and a cape starting Saturday at New Mexico and turn this season around once again.
Before it’s too late.
A few numbers to ponder . . .
When West has gotten at least six shots in a game, the Wolf Pack is 6-0. When West plays 28 or more minutes the Pack is 5-0. When West scores 10 or more points the Pack is 6-0. When West gets six or more free throw attempts the Pack is 3-0.
In other words, when West is engaged at the offensive end he is at his best. And the Pack is at its best.
West took over the game on offense in overtime against Air Force back on Feb. 1. He took six shots and went to the free throw line six times at Fresno State on Jan. 22. He made 5-of-7 shots against Colorado State on Jan. 29. He made a combined 10-of-17 shots against UNLV and Utah State in back to back games in the middle of January.
And the Pack won all those games.
The problem is that the Wolf Pack seems to feel that West only plays at one end of the floor. Yes, his teammates count on him to do the dirty work on the defensive end. But at the other end of the floor they hardly ever reward him for his hard work.
And that’s when West disappears. That’s when his mind seems to wander and his focus vanishes. And it affects him at both ends of the floor. During the last three games, West has taken just a total of 12 shots. He has scored just 18 points. He has pulled down a mere eight defensive rebounds.
And the Pack has lost all three games.
West seems to thrive on doing two things on the court. He loves to block shots and he loves to rebound the ball on the offensive end. The rest of the time he plays bored and unattached and that’s when he seems to vanish for long stretches at a time.
In other words, he is an enigma. It’s almost like there are two A.J. Wests.
West’s performance in the 75-67 loss to Fresno State on Wednesday is a perfect example of the A.J. West dichotomy that Carter must somehow juggle seemingly from possession to possession.
In the first half he was Superman. He pulled down nine rebounds, five on the offensive end, in just 13 minutes. He took five shots and made two. He scored six points. He attempted three free throws and made two. He blocked two shots. He converted two great passes by D.J. Fenner into rim-rattling dunks. He was simply the West that led the Pack to five wins in six games in the span of 20 days in late December and early January.
Then came the second half. And he turned from Superman into Clark Kent. Actually, it was more like Clark Griswold.
West played 12 minutes in the second half. He didn’t take a shot. He scored just one point. He grabbed one rebound. He didn’t block a shot. Carter took him out of the game five times in the second half. And this was against a team that basically didn’t have a true center.
West should have dominated the smaller Bulldogs. Instead, he disappeared mentally and physically when the Pack needed him most in the second half. The Wolf Pack can’t win when West plays like he’s invisible. A.J. West is at his best -- and the Pack is at its best -- when A.J. West is not only visible, he’s in the psyche of the opponent. The opposition must be afraid that if they even smell the paint he’s going to make them eat the basketball.
When West steps on the floor the opponent must involuntarily flinch. And West must fight for every rebound -- at both ends of the floor -- like a hungry wolf salivating for fresh meat. He has to be a presence, both mentally and physically, that the opponent must fear.
He can’t disappear like he did on Wednesday.
It’s important to understand that West’s vanishing acts are not entirely his fault. His teammates and coaches must take equal blame for West’s lack of productivity at times.
The Wolf Pack simply ignores him on offense. They rarely run a play for him. Heck, they rarely even pass him the ball. This is a team that falls in love with its jump shot and, well, dumping it into the center is not the first play in the David Carter and Deonte Burton playbook.
The vast majority of shots West does receive come only after he pulls down an offensive rebound. It’s probably why he seems to love to crash the offensive boards while he oftentimes looks bored on the defensive end. West has 56 offensive rebounds this year and 53 defensive rebounds. Most players have twice as many defensive boards as offensive boards. West, though, is more obsessed with blocking shots on defense than he is with rebounding. That something he needs to change.
But his teammates also need to make some changes. They need to feed the ball to their excitable teammate as a reward for all the work he does on defense, work that they proved unwilling to do before he arrived on the scene. West took just five shots against Fresno. Marqueze Coleman, for example, took six shots and he played just 17 minutes (West played 25).
The Pack even isolated Coleman -- a guy who is averaging five points a game over his last dozen games -- with the game on the line. They had Coleman run the point while Burton, the top scorer in the Mountain West, stood off to the side with the rest of his teammates, West included. They watched Coleman drive the ball on guard Cezar Guerrero down the lane and they watched Guerrero promptly block Coleman’s shot, leading to a Fresno State 3-pointer at the other end and a 68-60 Bulldogs lead with 1:39 to play.
OK, nobody is saying West is Nick Fazekas or Luke Babbitt in the paint. Nobody is saying he needs to score 15 points a game or take a dozen shots. But we are also saying he can’t go an entire half without shooting the ball for this team to be successful.
West has made 42-of-73 shots for a .575 shooting percentage this year, the best on the team. Again, he’s not Fazekas or Babbitt, or even Ric Herrin. He's an awful free throw shooter. But he also doesn’t break into a cold sweat like Kevin Panzer once he gets the ball down low.
It’s time to dump the ball into the center once in a while.
Giving West the ball (on purpose) will accomplish a few things. One, it will keep him engaged mentally at both ends of the floor. And an engaged West, a guy who plays on passion and adrenaline, is the best West. Two, it will soften up the defense inside so when the guards do venture inside they won’t be running into a brick wall. And, three, it will open things up outside for all those jump shots this team loves.
Remember, the Pack is 6-0 when West takes six or more shots. They are 6-0 when he scores 10 or more points. They are 5-0 when he plays 28 or more minutes. When he does none of those things, like Wednesday night, the Pack is 1-6.
It’s apparent the Wolf Pack and West need to draw up a contract. It’s a simple contract where everyone comes out a winner. The Pack must promise to pass him the ball now and then. And West, in return, must promise to stay focused and play like a salivating wolf -- at both ends of the floor so Carter will leave him out there.
It’s a deal that could enable this team to leap tall buildings in a single bound.